By Steve Weinstein
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For all her onstage virtuosic flair — which existed in the form of stage dives long before she added modern dance and a giant pink throne — matching the words "extrovert" and "Annie Clark" feels a bit odd. Though she's played music for at least a decade, first as a touring member of the Polyphonic Spree and in Sufjan Stevens's band, then as a solo artist, St. Vincent has managed to craft a public image that is eloquent, thoughtful, and has virtually nothing to do with her personal life as Annie Clark. Questions from the press about her family — she grew up Catholic in Dallas as one of eight children, and has lived in the East Village for much of her career — or her friends or who she dates are shut down or nimbly redirected toward more "interesting" conversation; rarely do St. Vincent Q&As broach topics beyond her creative process, her gear (her signature axe is a Harmony Bobkat), or her artistic pursuits. She sticks to many of the same lines of dialogue in interviews (which explains why almost every feature about St. Vincent reads the same). Small personal details are pieced together over time, of course, but unlike many artists of her caliber, she's created an anti-cult of personality, a media-savvy mystery determined to keep all eyes on the art instead of the artist.
Even behind the scenes, she remains the consummate professional, rarely exposing more to her team of collaborators than she would an interviewer on a good day. For example, when I suggest to David Byrne over email that Clark is a private person, his first response is, "Ha ha, that's an understatement."
"Despite having toured with her for almost a year I don't think I know her much better, at least not on a personal level," he writes. "We're more relaxed and comfortable around each other, for sure. You could call it privacy, or mystery or whatever — I know a few isolated things about her upbringing, school, and her musical likes and dislikes — but it's nice that there are always surprises, too. Mystery is not a bad thing for a beautiful, talented young woman (or man) to embrace. And she does it without seeming to be standoffish or distant."
That talent for controlling her own narrative without alienating anybody has become, more or less, the crux of her essence and success as St. Vincent. In 2009, Clark told the New York Times that she likes "things that are unsettling." Every subsequent profile, it seems, has extolled her ability to straddle two distinct identities, one warm and one profoundly unknowable. Her lyrics flirt with the candid and the esoteric without committing to either; a review of Strange Mercy lauded its "emotions that are as cryptic as they are genuine and affecting." She creates a dystopia in the video for "Digital Witness," then films a how-to clip demonstrating a soccer trick she learned in grade school for Rookie, a website for teen girls.
And when you interview her, the conversation is always good — she might tell you an unrelated story about her house in college, where a dead rat on the porch once left a visiting older sister weeping for her quality of life — even if she ends up picking the topics most of the time.
"I've learned a few things," she says of her time in the public eye. "I realize this lovely conversation is artificial; [in a real conversation,] I wouldn't talk about myself this much, I just wouldn't. I also know that being too sarcastic or too self-effacing doesn't translate in the press because it's devoid of context. Sometimes journalists ask [female artists] more personal questions." (The questions asked of Clark can get as personal as how much she weighs.)
"From the beginning of her career as St. Vincent, Annie Clark has succeeded in avoiding the confessional in her music," says NPR pop critic Ann Powers. Clark is one of a select few slated to play NPR's SXSW showcase in Austin next month. "This is not easy for a female artist — women in the arts are almost always assumed to be more naturally emotive than men, and less in control of what they produce. So it's a huge accomplishment that St. Vincent [has] succeeded as a construct, and as one that still could hold emotion and deep meaning while still highlighting Clark's mastery."
"You just have to have your own boundaries about things you're willing to talk about and things you're not willing to talk about," Clark says. "Everybody has lives and heartbreaks and disappointments and great joys and all this stuff. But that's what I put into the art. There's an intimacy and a full commitment in the art that makes me feel like it could potentially do a disservice to the art. 'Martha My Dear' is about a dog. I wish I didn't know that."
The power Clark wields isn't just relegated to her art; it resonates, among the people she works with, the people who write about her, and her fans. It's such a strong force that when her commitment to boundaries is questioned, the blowback from her public is immediate: When a comedian condemned Clark's refusal to discuss her love life on a recent podcast, for example, fans and journalists swiftly criticized the move as cruel and contemptuous, and within 48 hours of the podcast's going live, it had been edited and re-uploaded, sans critique; in the following episode, the comedian apologized. (The same comedian wrote a feature about the guitarist a few years ago, a story that, though she's quick to note no hard feelings, Clark says "kind of fit [me] into an agenda and [another] concept of the world, when we had sort of diametrically opposing ideas about the universe.")